Court upholds ban on pay-by-signature

The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Feb. 22 upheld 2002’s Ballot Measure 26, the union-sponsored measure that bans initiative signature-gatherers from being paid for each signature collected — a practice which had led to widespread documented fraud and abuse. 

The measure has been the feature of several news items recently because of alleged violations of the law among signature-gathering firms.

“The court said very clearly that the First Amendment cannot be used as a fig leaf for fraud and forgery,” said Tim Nesbitt, past president of the Oregon AFL-CIO and a co-sponsor of Measure 26. “We hope that Oregon’s Initiative Integrity Act (Measure 26) and this decision upholding that act will motivate voters in other states to enact similar safeguards to protect their initiative systems.”

Boiled down, the 38-page federal court decision says Measure 26 does not violate First Amendment (“free speech”) rights by requiring signature-gatherers to be paid by the hour, rather than on the “bounty system” of being paid per signature.

Among the plaintiffs was Jason Williams of the Taxpayers Association of Oregon. Williams’ organization tried to place anti-tax measures on the ballot in 2004, but was questioned by the Oregon secretary of state’s office about possible violations of Measure 26. Williams (and others) responded to the inquiry by filing a lawsuit alleging Measure 26 was unconstitutional. 

Not so, said the court, which asserted that Measure 26 applies reasonable constraints to the process. The courts said Measure 26 is targeted at electoral processes rather than at the communicative aspect of petition circulation.

“... Measure 26 imposed no severe or substantial burdens on the circulation of initiative or referendum petitions, and [the secretary of state’s] interest in protecting the integrity of the initiative process justified the lesser burdens imposed by the measure,” wrote Justice Carlos Bea.

Tom Chamberlain, president of the Oregon AFL-CIO, said “Oregon’s initiative process should be people-powered, not run by wealthy out-of-state interests who will pay $10 for a signature. Measure 26 plays an important role in keeping the initiative process democratic and clean."

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